In the past gambling would conjure up the image of a dusty gray-haired man in an Old West saloon. That picture changed dramatically with the rise of Las Vegas and the development of a game for everyone. Hard card games sit beside nickel slot machines and the wheel-of-fortune drawing young adults and grandparents alike. Recently high stakes gambling has become a media event as world poker series are televised, discussed and mimicked across high schools nationwide. Concurrently, Internet gaming has entered into the family home with the click of a cursor. While gambling is legal in 48 states, it remains illegal for children to participate in gambling activities. These activities may range from the traditional card game or horse race, to sports or video betting, to playing bingo or scratching a lottery card.
Defining pathological gambling is very similar to defining the habit of other addictive behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. A problem gambler likely has tried to stop and has been unable to do so. He wages increasingly larger amounts of collateral to support his habit, conceals the extent of his gambling participation, or commits illegal acts to support his habit. High risk child gamblers are more likely to be male, have a family history of addictive behaviors, have poor school performance and truancy, and are more likely to experience emotional arousal with gambling activities. As might be expected, states with more casinos and gambling venues have a larger problem with child gamblers. However, as Internet access has increased, so has child access to Internet gaming. Many gaming sites do not list an age restriction and choose domains that may not readily be identified with gambling.
It is up to parents and health care providers to be aware of the risks associated with child gambling and the signs a child may illustrate who is falling vulnerable to this addiction. These dangers exist on multiple levels. Children who enter into the realm of gambling are more likely to participate in other addictive activities. That may include drugs as well as promiscuous behaviors, which directly endanger their health. As part of the cycle of gambling, declining school performance and increased defiant behaviors are typical. The family’s financial well being is also at risk. The child gambler may look directly to family accounts and family holdings to support his habit, and “chase” loses that he feels are recoverable. Families must be acutely aware of how their children learn to understand gambling behaviors from their own family members. Children who are socially exposed to gambling as either a family ritual or special event are more likely to be desirous of the same kind of excitement they have observed in a parent or acquaintance. Any history of addictive behaviors in a family translates to a higher risk for a problem of child gambling.
For the majority of families today, children are the primary users of computers in the household. Many are very skilled in navigating the Internet and its contents. While child safety screens are well intentioned, many children are savvy enough to circumvent these protective measures. Parents must be directly aware of what sites their children are surfing, and how much time they are dedicating to computer use. Generally, no child should have more than sixty-to-ninety minutes of “screen” time a day, meaning television, computer, or video game exposure. In-room computers make this difficult to monitor, and many agree that a centrally placed computer increases the ability of parents to monitor their child’s computer related activities.
There are multiple warning signs parents may use as a clue to identifying potentially vulnerable children. Any abrupt change in school performance or personality should always be taken seriously and in itself is reason for more investigation by a parent or physician. Similarly, new requests for money or selling possessions should be an alarm. Families should be aware of their child’s group of friends, and any changes that occur to alter this group. Frequently, children who become heavily involved in gambling fall into a different social group that are similarly involved. Finally, parents should be attuned that one addictive behavior is often coupled with another. Therefore, a discovery of drug or alcohol abuse should lead to a discussion of other addictive behaviors including, but not limited to gambling. For more information on gambling behaviors and available state programs, check the National Council on Problem Gambling’s website at www.ncpgambling.org.